The Boss

Probably one of the most annoying, if not downright irritating, thing about being considered a marginalized author–no matter the cause of the marginalization–are the inevitable diversity panels one is almost always required to participate in; diversity is a topic worthy of discussion on panels at conferences or for libraries or bookstores or round tables for websites, newspapers, and magazines, after all; and what better way for people to learn about the challenges non-straight and non-white writers face all the time than public forums where they can talk about those things?

But it’s also a double-edged sword, too: as Steph Cha once put it, very wisely, “diversity panels inevitably turn into let’s teach the nice white people about racism panels.”

She’s right, although in my case, as a general rule, it becomes let’s teach the nice people about homophobia as a general rule.

It’s frustrating, and it’s tiring, frankly, and more than a little bit on the insulting side to realize programmers only see you as being of value because you’re different from the majority of the pool of writers they are programming for; why, for example, can’t I talk about character or plot or story or setting or all the plethora of subjects straight white people get to talk about? I am not just a gay writer; I’m a writer, and the adjective gay shouldn’t overrule or overpower any noun that comes after it.

But…I accept the invitations to do these panels because other invitations to do other panels, other readings, other events, aren’t forthcoming. I only get invited to do “diversity” readings and “diversity” panels; but I do them, even as I gnash my teeth a bit as I read the invitation.

I do them because my hope is that by doing them, queer writers of the future won’t have to do them. It’s a long haul, and a long game to play, but the recent movement of the crime fiction community in the right directions regarding diversity, and diverse authors, has been absolutely lovely.

But I also realized, several years ago, that I myself have no high horse to mount and ride in this game; because I myself wasn’t reading books by other queer and/or non-white writers. I set out to correct this, and an entirely new world of reading opened up to me; other experiences, other points of view, different ways of seeing society and culture and the world–and using these new points of view to breathe new life into a genre that was beginning to get a little stagnant again.

And I hate the thought that I might have, because of ingrained prejudices of a lifetime lived in a culture rooted in white supremacy, missed out on reading authors like Zakiya Dalila Harris.

Stop fussing at it, now. Leave it alone.

But my nails found my scalp anyway, running from front to back to front again. My reward was a moment of sweet relief, followed by familiar flood of dry, searing pain.

Stop it. Stop it.

I’d already learned the more I scratched, the more it’d resemble the burn of a bad perm–a bad perm that had been stung by fifty wasps and then soused with moonshine. My small opportunity for reprieve would come only after the trains started moving, when I could finally close my eyes and take comfort in the growing distance between me and New York City. Still, I continued to scrape at the itch incessantly, my attention shifting to another startling concern: we weren’t moving yet.

My eyes darted to the strip of train platform visible through the open doors, my mind moving faster than I’d moved through Grand Central Terminal just minutes earlier. What if someone followed me here?

The Other Black Girl is a riveting novel of suspense; workplace noir rather than domestic noir–and really, is there any place more noir than the office workplace? I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics; how individuals behave in groups, and even in the smallest of workplace, office politics inevitably come into play–unfair bosses, under-appreciated employees; the suck-ups who don’t work as hard or aren’t as competent but somehow always get the plum gigs and promotions because they play the game properly; the underminers….the first workplace drama I ever remember reading about was, of course, also set in publishing: Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which is vastly overdue for a reread (but I barely have time to read as it is). While the workplace and the drama swirling around the coffee machine or the break room wasn’t the center of the novel–it was more about the girls who worked there’s outside lives, and trying to maintain the balance between what they wanted with their ambitions and what is expected of them as women in American society–it’s always remained in my brain as a book about the workplace. The Devil Wears Prada also took a look at a workplace–that of a fashion magazine–and I personally thought the deeply flawed film version was far better than the deeply flawed book–but also firmly established in American culture the character of Miranda Priestley, the monstrous boss from hell; but Miranda was also the most interesting character in both book and film to me. I wanted to know more about her, who she was; Andie was neither original nor interesting enough, in my mind, to center a book or a film around.

The Other Black Girl also takes places at a prestigious publishing company, Wagner’s, and our main character is Nella–and a fascinating, well-rounded, and deeply developed character is she–one it is easy to sympathize with, to become vested in, and root for. Nella is a young woman of color–the only Black employee in editorial at Wagner’s, and her own drive and activism is being gradually worn down by the micro-aggressions and games and politics played in that workplace, only to be further complicated by the arrival of another Black girl, Hazel. At first, Nella is excited to have another Black girl in the workplace with her…until she slowly begins to realize that everyone responds to Hazel better; listens to her more; and sees her own not exactly rock-solid position at Wagner’s slowly being undermined by the other Black girl…is it deliberate undercutting of a fellow Black girl (‘there can only be one”) or is Nella being paranoid, the every day stressors of working in a mostly white environment making her paranoid, her grip on sanity beginning to slip a little bit? And then she starts getting threatening notes left on her desk….

This is a terrific read, and I loved Nella (although I would have loved to see more of her best friend, Malaika); Nella was fascinating to me. Raised in a mostly white upper middle class world, Nella often questions herself about whether she is “Black enough”–she has a white boyfriend, Owen, and has spent most of her life in mostly white spaces, and has for the most part found herself comfortable–if micro-aggressed–there; she’s ambitious and has a role model–a Black female editor who worked at Wagner before disappearing–and you can’t help but root for her to achieve her ambitions. Hazel is more of a mystery, but she is developed as well as can be for someone who isn’t the point of view character; and this mystery helps drive the story. What exactly is Hazel up to? Is she even up to something?

And the book also–spoiler alert–has a huge shift about 2/3rds of the way through that the reader will NOT see coming…and after that point, you won’t be able to stop reading.

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I loved it.

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